Jumbos to the jungleWe should stop using elephants for human entertainment at Chitwan National Park
In a week-long entertainment show organised every year in late December in Chitwan, roughly 100 elephants are forced to play football matches, participate in beauty contests and walk fast as part of a competition. The show, which entered its 12th year in 2015, is meant to attract tourists during the Christmas holiday season.
But with the earthquake and economic blockade reducing foreign tourist arrivals to a trickle, it is now mostly a few hundred Nepali tourists and locals who watch the games. And the venue of the event is an area that is rightly touted as one of the best sanctuaries for rhinos and tigers, including wild elephants. The annual show has been going on for more than a decade. How did this happen while there is growing activism and awareness about how we humans treat fellow living beings, particularly animals? How can Nepal be left behind in the midst of a global campaign against cruel treatment of animals?
This year, local conservationists, researchers, students and journalists grouped together to pressure the event organisers, hotel owners and other concerned groups to stop the contest. The campaign, little by little, has begun to bear fruit as the organisers have agreed to modify certain events so that they adhere to elephant welfare. Aside from this group, veterinary, agriculture and environment students have come forward to speak for the rights and freedom of elephants. These games, though well-intentioned, put both elephants and humans at risk as there is a possibility of transmitting disease to healthy elephants. Experts say chances of contamination of tuberculosis and other communicable diseases are high. Youth groups including Sauraha-based Animal Rights Club have been championing the cause of animal welfare with a view to help end human cruelty towards this beautiful creature that roams the dense forest here.
One wrong act by a group of people could send the wrong message all over the world, and that will affect the goodwill of this beautiful Himalayan country which is rich in natural scenery, biodiversity and culture. Tourism is a very sensitive business where service and ethics come together and affects the whole business and image of a country. If laws are lacking to regulate the treatment of wild animals, we should formulate policies to send a message that we are working to conserve endangered animals and all the wild flora and fauna in the Chitwan National Park.
Importance of elephants
Elephants are vigorous wild animals. Though they are mammoth in size, they are also endangered and at risk of extinction due to illegal poaching, hunting and exploitation. There are two types of elephants in the wild: African elephants and Asian elephants. Nepal is home to the second type which is more vulnerable than its African cousin. At the turn of the century, there were an estimated 200,000 Asian elephants. Today, there are hardly 35,000-40,000 left in the wild. An independent study has found that it costs around Rs100,000 per month to keep a domesticated elephant which weighs 4-6 tonnes. But Hotel Association Nepal says local owners spend only about Rs35,000 monthly for their upkeep. Private owners seem oblivious of the fact that exploitation of elephants is putting their health and that of the mahouts at risk.
Like other living organisms, elephants play a vital role in the ecosystem. They pull down trees, break up bushes, dig waterholes and feed on grasses and different seeds and nuts available in the forest. Some seeds will not germinate unless they pass through the digestive system of an elephant. Elephants live in small families and a matriarch usually leads the herd. Adult males mostly live alone, but they can communicate with females through sounds even over great distances. This is why wild elephants approach domesticated female elephants. Female elephants are reared for commercial purposes and they help to attract wild male elephants. But illegal hunters and poachers also take advantage of this.
The April earthquake dealt a devastating blow to Nepal’s tourism industry. Just as it was trying to pick itself up from the ruins, it received another direct hit in the form of an unofficial economic blockade by India. There have been other undesirable things like the blacklisting of Nepali airlines by the European Union for their poor safety record and inappropriate practices such as the abuse of animals for amusement, for example, the Live Yak Blood Drinking Festival in Myagdi. Such gory practices only produce a negative impression about our country. Instead of this, Nepal can cash in on its natural beauty, flora and fauna, breathtaking mountain views, rolling green hills with dramatic waterfalls and meandering rivers. What is more, we are blessed with the Tarai plains which are endowed with dense forests that are home to endangered animals including the deer, one-horned rhino and, of course, the elephant.
Many tourism entrepreneurs around the world no longer use elephants to attract tourists. They have come under pressure from activists around the world who demand an end to the abuse of animals for human entertainment and business.
Until a decade or so ago, a large number of animals were used in circuses. But it is almost over now, thanks to relentless campaigning by animal rights activists. This can be replicated in the case of elephant safaris as well. Major tourism destinations in the world like Thailand, Goa and Rajasthan are mulling stopping elephant safaris because of the cruelty and torture involved. The huge beasts have to be trained to make them human-friendly. In some countries, it is against the law to do so.
In Chitwan, tourism entrepreneurs should diversify their sources of income. The tourism business is based on ecotourism, adventure and culture. It is never too late to do good, so we should work together to spread a positive message around the globe. It also helps the national economy by developing sustainable tourism in an ethical manner. It is about time we did away with this disgraceful event of the elephant race and games. We should now stop the decade-long tradition of torturing the beasts so that they can return to their natural habitat, Chitwan National Park. Elephants and humans can coexist in nature and in harmony and peace.
Subedi is an assistant lecturer at Agriculture and Forestry University, Chitwan